Dear Masato, all at once (get a life, the only thing that cuts across the species is death)
4 November – 10 December 2016
The action began one Thursday night, when I attended an opening at West Space for Lisa Radford’s latest work, Dear Masato, all at once (get a life, the only thing that cuts across the species is death). Upon entering the exhibition, I was enticed to follow a procession of audience members into the office. All of the desks had been pushed against the walls and a large hole had been cut out of the wall at the far end of the room, connecting it to the gallery space on the other side. Curious, and continuing to follow the crowd, I found myself climbing through the hole and entering the gallery space. Immediately, a young man approached me, and standing directly in front of me, stated loudly, ‘I want a never-ending supply of chai’. Conscious of the presence of the crowd watching this situation play out, it occurred to me that I had, unintentionally, entered the action.
This project is the second in West Space’s annual commission series, whereby a local artist is invited to create and present a new body of work across the entire gallery space (the first was Lou Hubbard’s Dead Still Standing, 2015). Dear Masato… took the format of a series of performances, activated on only three occasions: the first on opening night and a further two iterations on Saturdays throughout the exhibition period. The project was developed as an extension of a previous exhibition Dear Masato, all at once (Margaret Lawrence Gallery, 2014), in which Radford acted as both curator and artist, inviting a group of fellow artists to participate by exhibiting works that responded to the concept of material relationships to politics. This new work draws on those artworks, casting them as characters in a grander narrative and bringing in more and diverse contributors.
While Radford trained as a painter, over the past few years she has largely moved away from producing object-based artworks, turning her attention instead to writing, curating, producing and teaching. This latest work draws together these distinct strands of her creative practice into a fantastically absurd, hilarious and self-reflexive gesamtkunstwerk.
Radford’s practice frequently involves working with others (most notably, she was a member of art collective DAMP from 1999–2010), as a way of challenging traditional artistic authorship and authority. She relinquishes a certain amount of control by inviting contributions from others, in essence forming a reciprocal creative relationship that explores a multiplicity of voices and truths. By using the title, ‘Dear Masato’, Radford prefaces a work that is simultaneously specific and general: both a homage to the artist Masato Takasaka’s practice and a creative technique of formatting the work as a letter addressed to an unknown audience.
The script for this performance was devised with contributions from, and in collaboration with, a variety of people, including Radford’s friends and colleagues, members of Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre Youth Committee in Western Sydney, secondary school students from Maffra High and individuals from George Gray Centre, a day service for adults living with a disability. Drawing from the contributors’ varied life experiences, the scripts were developed through workshops, email exchanges and conversations. Participants were prompted with questions such as, ‘How does a painting speak? What does a sculpture say?’1 Radford then worked closely with directors and the troupe of actors from Northern Theatre Company in order to develop the performances.
Dear Masato… uses techniques from theatre, storytelling and comedy to create an absurdist performative experience. Drawing on political and social commentary, religion, popular culture and Australian vernacular, the actors rotate through a range of characters whose speech and behaviour is strangely familiar. Their script spans the gauntlet of everyday speech, containing monologue, dialogue, mimicry, repetition, forced laughter, and one-sided conversation; slogans and chatter; catchphrases; words and phrases taken out of context; in-circle jokes; comments; jibes; insults and small talk. The stage directions loosely dictate the actor’s movements throughout the space according to a set of rules, for example, walk six steps at a time, go slow, go fast, change direction every six steps, pause for only twelve beats, copy people, repeat an action three times.2
In an allusion to a video work, this performance loops six acts in a repetitive cycle, consciously mimicking the self-reflexive process of generating material for the script. This is further reflected by Radford’s interventions into the structure of the gallery: by carving holes in walls that usually separate the spaces and their functions, she alters the very architecture of West Space. The resulting uninterrupted movement between the spaces creates a loop that physically mirrors the logic of the piece. Taking cues from the language of institutional critique, Radford removes the partition between private office space and public gallery space, placing the usually hidden ‘backstage’ business of running a gallery clearly on display. The viewer, too, is implicated in the existence of this institutional system.
Unlike a play, where the distinction between actors and audience is clearly defined, this work blurred these boundaries, turning the audience into participants. The performance was acted around us, for us, with us, and despite us. A woman walked slowly along the path of the walls around the gallery, humming and singing a tune to herself. At times the actors would approach a group or a person and mimic their actions; arms crossed, hands on hips, sipping beer. I became conscious that we too, were performing. Going through the ritual motions of the exhibition opening activity, we were made aware of our bodies and our actions. We were performing the post-Fordist labour of artistic activity, the unpaid work required of artists and arts workers — drinking beer and cheap wine, small talk, people watching, networking, schmoozing.3 Dear Masato… therefore made visible the conventions of social relations and interactions in an art gallery context.
While most initiated art audiences today understand that the viewer plays an integral part in the work of art, we are still not entirely comfortable when this active role is made explicit. Pushing the boundaries of discomfort and awkwardness, Radford had posed herself a challenge: ‘Is it possible to touch people without hurting them? How can you make people feel something? Is it possible?’4 In my experience the performance did not manipulate viewers into a specific engagement, but rather allowed them to move freely throughout the space and the work. Significantly, Radford made the decision that there would be no physical contact between the actors and the audience. So while the action gets very close to you, sometimes uncomfortably so, it never physically touches you or violates your personal space. The audience’s willing interaction with the performance on opening night was a pleasant outcome that not even the artist could have anticipated; although perhaps she hoped for it.
On returning to the final iteration of the performance, my experience was markedly different to that first night. The beauty of durational, time-based work is that it is not a complete and isolated performance, but an original, ever-changing event that takes place only in the present.5 No two performances were the same, and the piece was so expansive that it was impossible to experience in its entirety. And to do so would not be the point. The work was bigger than Lisa Radford, bigger than the actors and the audience; it was a sum of all these parts and more. Watching my fellow audience members — myself included — smiling and breaking out into laughter at the sheer absurdity and hilarity of the performance, it is hard to think of another work of art that I have seen in recent times that elicited such engagement and joy in its audience.
Conversation with the artist, 20 December 2016. ↩
For a discussion of the labour of artistic activity, see Hito Steyerl, ‘Art as Occupation: Claims for an Autonomy of Life’, e-flux journal #30, December 2011. ↩
Conversation with the artist, 20 December 2016. ↩
This idea is explored further in Boris Groys, ‘Comrades of Time’, e-flux journal #11, December 2009. ↩